Northern Vietnam Is Awesome

Now that our trip through the northern region of VN is over I can breathe a sigh of relief. Not only was it non-disastrous, we had an amazing time. Our days were jam-packed and bustling with activity so I wasn’t able to blog while traveling and now that we’re back in southern VN it’s hard to retrospectively chronicle each portion of the journey. I’ll just summarize by saying that the people we met were lovely, the scenery was breathtaking, most of the food was excellent, the accommodations were wonderful (by VN standards), and the overall experience was delightful. Even though folks were getting tired toward the end, the trip was a resounding success without major incident.

An unexpected highlight of the trip was the gracious hospitality of my cousin’s husband’s family in northern VN. We were strangers to them and they welcomed and hosted us like family. Everywhere we traveled, from Vinh Phuc to Lao Cai to Sapa to Ha Noi to Ha Long Bay to Tam Dao and back again, we were greeted and chaperoned and chauffeured and well taken care of. My cousin SW met her husband Hung in Saigon but he was born in Ha Noi and many of his relatives still live in the north. Hung’s family arranged much of our transportation and accommodations, often without any cost to us, and kept us well fed. Homemade meals prepared by Hung’s relatives were generally better than what we found at restaurants. It wasn’t exactly comfortable to dine in the traditional northern style — sitting cross-legged on reed matts on the floor — but discomfort was a small price to pay for trays upon trays of delectable (and sometimes unusual) food. Within a span of a week we sampled delicacies such as horse, squirrel, porcupine, and tortoise. I always appreciate the opportunity to try new foods but I have to admit the exotic stuff was not my favorite. The northerners got a kick out of Tom with his southern, Americanized accent and easy humor. Tom has never been one to refuse liquor, even if it looks, smells and tastes like gasoline, and he quickly became a favorite among the beer-guzzling, shot-pounding men. In typical VN fashion, men and women dined in separate groups and afterwards the men would talk and joke and toast each other while the women washed dishes squatting in the corner of some courtyard.

After the first night at a guest house in Vinh Phuc, we took an overnight “sleeping” bus to Lao Cai, which is within driving distance to Sapa. The mountains and valleys of Sapa were gorgeous to behold and it was exhilarating to enjoy refreshing, crisp mountain air. It was probably the first time we’ve been comfortable being outdoors during the day in VN. It was also the first time that I felt like I was on vacation since arriving to VN. We visited silver waterfalls and climbed hilly gardens. The town nestled in the mountains of Sapa was as overrun with western tourists as Hoi An had been, but also quite lovely. After two nights in Sapa we returned to Vinh Phuc for another night and the next morning were driven to Ha Noi to catch our boat tour to Ha Long Bay, my favorite part of the trip. The boat was relatively new, which is a good thing because last year several foreign tourists on a similar boat tour drowned in Ha Long Bay when the boat sank as they were sleeping. We tend to throw caution to the wind when we’re vacationing (the reason why we jumped at the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong at the height of the SARS epidemic, because fares to Asia were so cheap, which trip we fondly remember as our “SARS Vacation”). The boat had about 25 guests and was absolutely charming. I loved the cabins and the meals and the sight of beautiful green islands drifting by and calm waters surrounding us all day. It was heavenly! After a fun-filled day exploring an enormous cave, kayaking, and squid-fishing, we spent a relaxing night on the boat and the next day sailed to a private island with equally charming wooden bungalows overlooking an isolated beach with powdery soft white sand. After our tour of Ha Long Bay, we spent a night in Ha Noi and then returned to Vinh Phuc before heading up to the mountains of Tam Dao to visit temples and enjoy more cool mountainous weather. After a final meal with Hung’s family, we boarded our plane back to Saigon feeling sleepy, weary, and contented.

Not only did Tom and I have a fantastic time, our kids were delirious with joy. I think that was the best part. The sight of them running and laughing so gleefully all over the boat and the beach are memories that will warm my heart for the rest of my life. Even my hypercritical mom, who’s hard to please and quick to find fault, couldn’t help but be thrilled. When she first met Hung’s relatives, she was skeptical about their motives. She had her prejudices about northern VN people, as most southern VN people do. There might be residual tension between northerners and southerners, something about a war. Southerners think northerners are two-faced, mean, arrogant. Northerners think southerners are tactless, uncultured posers. Those are the stereotypes anyway. The first meal hosted by Hung’s family was dominated by beef dishes, which, after my Stir Fried Beef FAIL experience, we knew was no small expenditure. Instead of being honored and grateful that our hosts had splurged on us, my mom whispered to me that northern VN people like to “show off” because they used to be so poor. By the end of the trip, my mom had to concede that Hung’s relatives were genuinely gracious, kind-hearted people.

My cousin SW had been nervous about the trip and especially the boat tour because she didn’t want us to be disappointed. Seeing us so happy made her really happy which in turn made us even happier. Happiness is just as infectious as misery. Everything wasn’t completely perfect all the time, but it was easy to overlook minor imperfections. The company we were in had as much impact on our experience as the activities and the amenities we enjoyed. Being around generous, caring people who are so eager for you to have a good time and who are so invested in your happiness cannot fail to put you in a good mood. And the children behaved beautifully. There were mild skirmishes and breakdowns but all standard stuff and I was pleasantly surprised by my cousin’s sons and so proud of my own kids. They ate well and didn’t torture us. In a nutshell, we were in the ideal setting to thoroughly enjoy ourselves. I don’t think we would have enjoyed ourselves or appreciated our surroundings nearly as much if we had traveled with different people; not because we don’t enjoy the company of other people, but because the people we were with were bending over backwards to make us happy, so we were highly motivated to forget any complaints and focus on the upside. Glass half full sort of thing. Except our glass was much more than half full; it was brimming, with good fortune, good intentions, good company, and good cheer.

Tom Ate Dog

Tom didn’t want to post any pictures or announcements about this momentous event in his life, probably due to a mixture of shame and embarrassment but mostly because of a sense of delicacy towards our canine-loving American friends, but I’ve decided to expose him because I believe that if you’re going to do something, you should admit to doing it and if you’re too ashamed to admit it, then you shouldn’t have done it. In reality, Tom isn’t all that ashamed of himself, and our philosophy on dogmeat is very similar, at least in theory. Even so, I refuse to try it and probably never will.

We don’t have any pets at home and I’m not a dog person. I don’t have anything against dogs, they just seem to be more trouble than they’re worth. I like animals but I’m not passionate about them. I hate the idea of cruelty towards any living creature. We buy cage-free whenever we can and I aspire to be vegetarian at some later point in my life. Right now I enjoy meat too much to give it up. In my mind, the only distinction that should be made among types of meat is taste (and maybe availability, sustainability, and environmental impact). Dogs shouldn’t necessarily enjoy a privileged status because they’re treasured pets in some parts of the world. Maybe pet owners would never eat their pets or their pets’ species of animal, but that shouldn’t stop someone else who doesn’t have qualms about it. Pigs are more intelligent than dogs and their capacity for suffering is not in any way inferior to dogs, so I feel like the stigma surrounding consumption of dogmeat shouldn’t be any different than the stigma surrounding consumption of pork. Animals are animals and I have as much sympathy for cows and pigs as I do for dogs. Yet I’ll eat beef and pork but I won’t touch dogmeat, ever. It’s because I’m American and I understand the deep-seated affection that many Americans have for their cats and dogs, and there’s a cultural stigma that you can’t ignore.

Based on my appearance, I’ve been pegged a foreigner my entire life, and it’s been an uphill battle to fit in. I’ve always been too shy or too nerdy or too standoffish or too weird or too sarcastic or too obnoxious or too Asian or not Asian enough. When you’re accused of eating cat or dog as a child, in addition to all your other eccentricities, you’re none too anxious to run out and try cat or dog as an adult. I have a hard enough time trying to get society to accept me and perceive me the way I want to be perceived without adding the label of “dog-eater” to my list of quirks. I’m simply not curious enough about dogmeat to accept the stigma attached to eating it. Tom is braver and less hypocritical than me in that respect. He’s been wanting to try dogmeat since the first time we visited VN over 13 years ago and now he can finally cross it off his bucket list.

Expect the Worst, Hope for the Best

We’re back in Saigon in anticipation of our next trip to the northern region of Vietnam. My cousin has planned an 11 day vacation for us and we depart in a few days. Tom and I, our kids, my mom, my cousin and her husband and their two boys, ages 6 and 10. The literal English translation of my cousin’s name is Snow White. Even though SW has graciously handled every detail and prepaid many of our expenses, I’m a little nervous about the trip. SW, who’s about my age, is probably my favorite cousin in VN right now. She’s sweet, fun-loving, and likes to tease. I’m still self-conscious about my language skills so I can’t be as comfortable and talkative as I would like to be around SW and her husband, Hung. I’m worried about how the upcoming trip will affect our relationship. An 11 day vacation is probably the ultimate test of compatibility.

I worry that SW will mistake my shyness for dullness, or worse, think that I’m sullen and unappreciative. I worry that I’ll hate her kids. So far I don’t have the best impression of them. I worry that I’ll hate my kids. They’ve proven to be pretty terrible on vacation. I worry that accommodations and food are going to be unappealing or patently offensive. I worry that partway through the trip we’ll realize that no one is having fun and everyone is in fact thoroughly miserable and only destined for more misery because we’ll be trapped with each other until the vacation runs its course. I worry about tension, awkwardness, resentment, boredom, frustration, alienation, or God forbid open hostility and declarations of war. Vacationing with my mom is always a risky proposition and she and I are on the outs right now due to a recent fight so that doesn’t bode well for this venture. Basically I worry that this trip might turn out to be like our last trip.

My expectations are so low that I’m just hoping we don’t end up hating each other. It would be a bonus to actually have fun, but I’m not holding my breath for 11 days.